The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genes are not only the key to life, but holds the details of our history and our future too. In this book, Mukherjee takes us on a journey to uncover the origins of this master code and the story of discovering and deciphering it. It is a story that spans world history, but begins with a monk in an Augustinian monastery who discovers a unit of heredity in his study of peas. Mendel may not have been one of the first to be fascinated but the ideas of heredity, and he certainly wasn’t going to be the last. Darwin was one of the next with his discovery of evolution and the way that certain traits established themselves in the populations of finches on each of the Galapagos Islands.
As science advanced during the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, cells started to give up their secrets to the scientists that were studying them. Each discovery added to the knowledge of how each of us carries traits and characteristics from our parents. This dream of making the perfect human from good parents became the spectre that is eugenics, culminating in the horrors with the Nazi obsession with creating the perfect Aryan race and eliminating those that were deemed to be sub-human. Post world war two we knew more about the way that RNA and DNA worked, but no one could work out just how it did it. The brilliant X-ray images of DNA that Rosalind Franklin took gave Francis Crick and James Watson the insight to work out the construction of the beautiful double helix that is DNA. He describes the quest to map the entire human genome, a feat achieved by scientists working across the globe, who just beat a private company who had designs on patenting it.
He is eminently qualified to write this, as he is the assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He brings us up to date with the latest research and discoveries in genetic research as well as posing the questions that we need to ask and answer as we learn how to change and write to the human genome. To cover all that we have found out about the gene, the book needs to be broad in scope. It is fairly detailed and occasionally baffling and incomprehensible to a non-scientist like myself, but thankfully not very often. Woven through the book too is the story of Mukherjee’s family and their reoccurring history of mental illness as it moved through the generations; it adds a nice personal touch to the book, showing just how our genes can affect us all. If you want a good overview of the history of the gene, you can’t go wrong starting here.
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